The woman sat by the long window of the coffee shop, making ridiculous and exaggerated faces at her laptop screen. I sat at least ten feet away, studiously not looking directly at her. Her hair was dyed a deep jade hue and tied into a ponytail, one which seemed to be centered on nothing except perhaps imagination. She wore a red shirt and had a long blue tie loosely around her neck. The tie was thrown over her left shoulder.
My coffee was too hot and as a result, I found myself furiously blowing on it. I realized that this was largely ineffective, given that the lid was still on the cup. I laughed. As I did, I looked briefly toward the green-haired woman. She was looking directly at me. I quickly looked away. And then back. She was still looking in my direction.
She motioned with her hand for me to join her at her table.
Not sure about what might happen next, I took my laptop and coffee and walked to the window, pulled the chair away from the table, and sat down.
“Hi, I’m Sue,” the woman said, smiling. “You must be John,” she said.
I hesitated. “No, I’m not John at all. I’m Kirk.”
“You look like a John. Are you sure your name isn’t John? Take a moment and think about it.” She continued to smile.
“Uh… No. I’m Kirk,” I said. I knew I sounded a bit stupid.
She reached her left hand across the table, presumably to shake mine. I thought about putting a sugar pack in her hand. Instead, I grabbed her hand as she shook it.
Sue turned her laptop around and showed me the screen. On it, a picture of me from a few years ago was displayed. My mind went blank for a second as I tried to bridge the gap of just meeting her and seeing my picture on her laptop.
Sue laughed. “Relax, Kirk. This is something I do.”
“For a living?” I asked.
“No, as a hobby. I write freelance to pay the bills. That and buy and sell nonsense on the internet.” She turned her laptop back in her direction.
“What kind of writing do you do?” Writers always fascinate me.
“All kinds. I even write dialog for screenwriters. That’s fun. Want to hear an example?” She quizzically titled her head, knowing I was going to say yes.
“Okay. A couple of years ago, a writer for an ABC sitcom needed an excuse to get someone to a cemetery. So I had the character say, ‘Anytime I need to cry a lot, I go to the cemetery, because no one questions someone crying there.’ That’s pretty good, huh?”
I was already nodding my head in agreement.
“Another one? I had the idea that the character should put a greenscreen inside his car, so that everyone would think he was at home, instead of driving to Dallas.” She laughed. “But that’s been done six hundred and two times now, thanks to the pandemic.”
“What’s your secret?” I asked.
“I accidentally burned down the neighbor’s house when I was 14,” Sue said.
When I looked at her face to gauge her sincerity, she winked.
“That is some secret, yes,” I told her.
“It’s not a secret now, though, is it?”
“No, but I also meant what’s your secret for success?” I smiled.
“I have no clue. It’s mostly been luck and being in right place at the wrong time and sometimes vice versa. But you know that.” She smiled.
“Well, I guess I’m in the right place at the right time now, aren’t I?” I laughed.
“Touché! Ha! But yes. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we?”
I leaned back in my chair, not questioning her assumption. It turned out she was right.
Two hours later, I knew both nothing and everything about her. It seemed like the best start possible.
Her birth name was Dilemma. No one called her that except for me. Everyone else called her “Lemma.” Dilemma told people she had no idea where her birth mother came up with the name. That wasn’t true, though, as I learned one late Friday night. We had separately exited our studio apartments to find a quiet place outside. The other two or three tenants preferred to sit in the patio area. I preferred being alone.
We were both sitting cross-legged on the plank porch, holding bottles of tequila and gin, swapping sips from each other’s bottles. We’d have splinters tomorrow. Tomorrow was a year away when I was with her. Dilemma occasionally pretended to spit into whichever bottle she was about to hand to me. I responded by licking around the rim of the bottle and laughing.
Over the last few weeks, we began to seek each other’s company in the evenings. Most of the time, we sat in silence. Some nights, Dilemma wanted to talk. She was well-educated, though she wouldn’t divulge any specifics. I knew she could speak two other languages and at times I suspected she might have a photographic memory.
Dilemma leaned towards me, a little unbalanced. She pretended to whisper as I leaned toward her. She then shouted, “My Dad told my Mom he’d kill her if she insisted on giving birth to me. That was the dilemma.”
I nodded, waiting for her to continue. Dilemma always had a follow-up or footnote. Sometimes she waited a week to connect details to something she mentioned.
“Needless to say, Dad woke up the next morning with a gun stuck in his crotch. Mom had it cocked, too, no pun intended. ‘You have until 9 a.m. to get out of this house and out of my life. If you don’t, well…’ and pushed the gun painfully into his boxers. He just nodded. That’s what my Aunt Dill told me, anyway. I like that story.” Dilemma nodded as if to punctuate it was my turn to say something. I made a mental note to ask about Aunt Dill later.
Just as I was about to utter something hilarious, Dilemma shouted, “Hey, I wasn’t done talking!”
“Okay, fire away,” I told her.
“I was going to say, it’s your turn to talk now.” She grinned.
“Did you know that your nickname Lemma means several different things? Like part of a plant, or a Greek word for ‘assumption?'” I nodded, to pass the conversation back to her.
“Well, you’re a stalker, aren’t you, Dane? Ha!” She took an excessively long drink of tequila.
“Are you making a play on the words ‘plant’ and ‘stalker?'” I asked her. “If you are, you can do better.” I laughed.
“No, better is for jerks. Can I ask you a favor? Would you lean over and kiss me? I know we’ve never kissed. That’s okay. Just get it over with.” She winked at me.
I should have known better. As I leaned in to peck her on the lips, she kissed me and wrapped her hand around my head, stuck her tongue between my lips, then surprised me by spewing a surprising amount of tequila in my mouth. She howled with laughter as I coughed and sputtered. As my eyes burned, Dilemma laughed harder.
As I regained my breath, I asked her, “What did you do that for?”
Dilemma leaned in and kissed me on the mouth.
“I wanted you to know that if you go forward with me, life is going to have a lot of tequila-in-the-mouth moments.” She smiled and took another drink. She winked again and asked me, “Do you trust me?”
I laughed, leaned over, and kissed her again. Whether there would be more tequila was anyone’s guess.
Trevor stopped a few miles back. As he filled the gas tank on his dad’s 1985 Plymouth Gran Fury, his next move came to him. For a month, his mind nibbled at the idea of changing his life completely. His girlfriend moved to Texas at the beginning of summer. She settled into a routine as the fall semester started. Last week, she casually mentioned that it might be an excellent place for him to visit. Or live. Trevor had planned to start classes at the community college in Georgia, where his uncle owned a shop. He also had a loft above the garage that was Trevor’s for as long as he wanted it.
He went back inside the convenience store and bought a large black coffee. He sat in the passenger seat with the door open, sipping at the coffee. It was the first cup of black coffee in his life. The taste was bitter to him, but the heat was welcome. By the time he reached the bottom of the cup, Trevor knew he wasn’t going to college, at least not in Georgia, and he certainly wasn’t returning here. Texas seemed like a great place to start a new life.
As he pulled away from the store, he pressed the accelerator hard. The money his dad spent on this car made its presence known in the engine as it roared. Trevor felt like he might be driving a rocket. He put the driver and passenger windows down as the wind howled through the car’s interior. By the time Trevor reached Highway 103, he had forgotten that he was traveling at over eighty mph. As the wind whipped his hair across his face, he was thinking of seeing Becky in Texas. He didn’t know he was smiling. He definitely didn’t notice the partially-obscured stop sign.
The truck hauling the cattle trailer behind it hit Trevor’s car on the passenger side, caving it into the steering wheel, breaking Trevor’s neck instantly, as well as shattering a variety of bones throughout his body. He didn’t know what hit him.
A few seconds later, the driver of the cattle hauler emerged from his truck, dazed but with only a broken wrist and a few minor injuries. He knew the boy driving the Gran Fury was dead. He looked inside the car anyway, hoping for a miracle he knew wouldn’t greet him. Hopefully, his CB radio would still work so he could radio in for a state trooper or local police. On the way back to his cab, he kneeled to pick up the license plate that had been knocked off his truck in the crash. He noticed that his blue sticker was going to expire at the end of this month. Texas was no place to be driving around with expired tags, especially in 1993.
In a few minutes, the driver heard a siren, followed by flashing lights approaching. The driver waited, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. The Arkansas State Trooper looked inside the mangled Gran Fury and then asked the driver if he could have one of his cigarettes.
Jane stood by the bridge railing, peering down to the surface of the river below. It didn’t seem so far down now. Every year on May 5th, she drove a county over and illegally parked on the bridge, got out, and peered down at the river. It was a ritual to mark her survival. Until this year, she made a point to drive over around the time of the original accident. For no discernible reason, she waited until five in the afternoon to drive over today.
Eleven years ago, she had plummeted over the railing and landed in the river. She had no idea who rescued her. The man who witnesses saw leaving didn’t come forward afterward. Some thought that the man was the driver who clipped her from behind and spun her out of control, sending her car over the railing. While it was possible, Jane didn’t believe it. She knew that whoever saved her had a darned good motive to stay out of the spotlight.
Jane returned to her car, turned off the emergency hazard lights, and pulled away from the railing. She slowly rolled the length of the bridge. As her car reached the end, she noticed an older yellow Chevy Cheyenne pickup on the side of the road past the bridge. A man wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt stood in front of the truck, looking down toward the river.
Not knowing why she did so, Jane pulled a little further along and parked on the grass. She didn’t bother with her emergency lights this time. She reached into the passenger floorboard and picked up her flask of whiskey. Exiting the car, she walked along the far side of the Cheyenne pickup and stopped a few feet from the man in the white t-shirt.
She stood silently, staring at the river. She took a pull from the flask. As she wiped the side of her mouth with her hand, the man turned to look at her. Without a word, he took a step and reached for the flask. Jane didn’t hesitate. She handed him the flask and watched as he took a long sip.
His eyes widened in surprise, as he probably expected something of lesser quality. Jane never skimped on whiskey and she certainly wouldn’t have thought to do so during her yearly visit over to the bridge that changed her life.
“What are you watching?” Jane asked. “My name’s Jane, by the way.”
The man made eye contact with her and smiled. “The name’s Mark. Just thinking about a day a long time ago.”
“Oh? Me too. This bridge changed my life. It woke me up, if that makes sense.” Jane didn’t know what propelled her to speak honestly.
“I know exactly what you mean. This bridge saved my life. I used to come here every year, thinking I might find what I was missing. This is my first visit in five. It’s still beautiful.” Mark stopped talking and seemed wistful.
Jane took another pull from her flask and handed it back to Mark.
“This is great whiskey, Jane. Thanks!” They looked at each other and held eye contact for a second longer than normal. “I saved someone’s life here once. On a beautiful day exactly like today. It went from sunshine to hell in three seconds that day.”
Jane held her breath, calculating the odds of such a coincidence.
“I had my life saved her on a day exactly like today, Mark. One minute I was driving and the next, I was waking up on the riverbank right there.” She pointed below as she spoke.
They each took another sip of whiskey and let the silence accumulate between them.
Mark turned to face Jane directly. He seemed to struggle to say something. He shrugged and said, “Can I hug you?”
Jane stepped toward him and allowed Mark to wrap his arms around her, holding her against him. The sun beat down upon them and they held their pose. A vehicle passed slowly. Neither looked up to see who it was or whether they noticed the odd couple hugging on the side of the road and bridge.
Mark pulled away. “Would you be interested in going to eat, Jane? There’s a pretty spot up the road a couple of miles.”
“Are you kidding? I’d love to.” Jane smiled.
Mark smiled, showing his teeth. Jane watched the smile travel to his eyes.
“I might have a few questions for you, though, if that’s okay.” Jane watched Mark’s smile grow larger.
“I figured you might. Let’s eat and see what comes next.”
The bowl of lemons remained on the end of the kitchen counter, taunting him. Darel continued to refill the basket in a mindless and intermittent ritual. He wasted a minute, lost in his thoughts, wondering how inanimate objects often contained invisible power. Before thinking too hard about it, he grabbed the wooden bowl of lemons, opened the back door, and stepped outside. He placed the bowl on the railing of his deck. One by one, he grabbed the lemons and hurled them across the yard and into his neighbor’s yard. Within seconds, he had thrown all of them.
“Hey, Darel? Is everything okay over there?” Darel looked up to see his neighbor John standing about twenty feet from the rear of his own house. John must have been standing outside when the barrage of lemons started pummeling his yard.
Darel surprised himself by shouting, “No!” to John.
John walked toward Darel. Darel, for his part, struggled to control the urge to turn and run back inside and barricade the door.
“It’s okay, Darel. It was just lemons this time. You must really be angry at lemons!” Even Darel smiled at John’s joke.
John now leaned against the chain-link fence separating their back yards. Darel walked over to the fence and stopped a few feet away from John, who now stood silently, waiting for Darel to speak.
“John, I don’t know what to say. Looking at the lemons in the kitchen just made me sad. I’ll be okay, I imagine.” Darel looked up at John as he nodded.
“I know what you mean. This pandemic has ruined us all a little. You’ve had it harder than most, Darel. My offer still stands: if you need an ear, a beer, or a meal, or maybe just someone to sit in the room and not talk to you, come on over. Anytime, okay?” John looked directly at Darel, who nodded and then smiled. Darel instinctively reached toward John to shake his hand. John took it and gripped it over the chain-link. “I mean it,” he said. “We can sit in my living room or on the back porch and ignore each other.”
The following day, Darel slept in late, until about 6:30 a.m. He made a pot of coffee out of habit, without thinking that he’d be the only one there to drink it. When he poured his first cup and noticed he made a whole pot, he decided that since it was Sunday, he might finish it off. He stood at the counter, sipping his first cup until he finished it. He poured a second cup and peered through the blinds and into the backyard.
“What the eff?” he asked, looking outside. It looked like one hundred tennis balls were scattered around his yard.
Darel took his second cup of coffee and went outside to his desk, peering at the ground. It took him several seconds to realize that the tennis balls were lemons. He jerked his head up and looked at the back of John’s house, which was still dark.
Darel walked out in the wet grass barefooted. He had the idea that John might be watching him from a darkened window, so he flipped a high bird in his direction. And then he laughed, his head thrown back in genuine amusement, as he imagined John out in his yard last night, tossing dozens of lemons into his yard.
“I need some vodka to go with all these lemons,” Darel said to himself as he sipped his coffee and shuffled his toes through the wet grass.
He decided he’d take John up on his offer. It was about time to stop looking into the rearview mirror. The pandemic had stolen enough from him.
He laughed again as he looked at all the lemons scattered in his yard. After he sipped the last gulp of his morning coffee, he went inside.
It was love at first sight. He stood between the well-stocked aisles, mouth agape, shocked at the beauty in front of him. He had successfully ignored the growl of hunger inside himself for what seemed like days. A woman stood to the side, wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved blouse, a smile as big as Christmas on her face. She wore simple casual white shoes. More importantly, a wall of chips stood behind her, a collection of colors and flavors as diverse as any he’d witnessed. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on those chips, his fingers covered with a variety of flavorings. If only the woman would get the hell out of the way so he could get started.
Jeff sat near the large bank of windows at the front of the diner. In front of him, he held a cup of coffee between his hands. His eyes followed the passersby as they hurried by him. Few looked inside the diner as they marched past. The glass dissuaded most people from peering too closely if they did glance in his direction.
Jeff tipped well, so the small group of potential waitresses didn’t object to him lingering there until he drank five or six cups of coffee. Only one asked him why he enjoyed people watching there. Jeff smiled. “Watching people gives me an endless number of stories to tell. Each one who passes is his or her own universe, one which I get to populate in whatever way comes to me as my muse.” The waitress in question, Shirley, nodded, probably a little surprised by his unexpected answer. She’d seen a lot in twenty-two years of working at the diner.
This afternoon, Jeff had a couple of interesting stories. One older man who had walked past briefly opened his overcoat, revealing a silver pistol shoved into his waistband. A beautiful middle-aged woman had stopped nearby and surprised Jeff by lighting a cigarette. She dropped several things from her small purse. As she bent to retrieve them, her dress rose up, revealing lovely legs. When she stood back up, she looked directly at Jeff and winked. He winked back and nodded. She laughed and walked out of his view.
As Jeff sipped from his cup, a small blue Honda pulled up. The driver, a small man wearing an expensive suit, exited his car, leaving the driver’s door open. In his right hand, he held a small brick. Before Jeff could notice more details, the man swung the brick on the glass on the window about six feet from where Jeff sat. The glass cracked, making an odd popping sound. The man stepped back three or four paces and hurled the brick at the window. As the brick hit the window, it imploded, sending glass cascading inside.
The five or six customers inside turned their heads toward the window in surprise. The glass didn’t go far. Neither did the brick. It fell across the table in the next booth and then skidded to the floor.
Jeff stared at the man who threw the brick. Behind him, he heard Shirley say, “Damn it, Jim, not again!” The tone of her voice conveyed the accusation that he’d done it before. Shirley walked over to where the brick lay on the floor. She picked it up and threw it back out the window. It went further than Jeff anticipated. The man who threw the brick, presumably Jim, picked up the brick, cocked a finger at Shirley, and laughed. He turned, got into his Honda, and drove away.
Shirley turned to the register, where Jinny stood, a bemused look on her face. “Jinny, call Joe, and tell him Jim broke another window!” Shirley turned to Jeff and said, “Refill, hon?” Jeff nodded, unsure of what he had witnessed.
When Shirley came back over to refill his cup, Jeff exclaimed, “Are you going to tell me what that is all about?”
Shirley said, “Well, you’re always looking for stories. Jim is the brother of Joe who owns this diner. Jim breaks a window every year on March 22nd. So Joe takes the day off every year.” She smiled, knowing that although she answered his question, she hadn’t really.
“Okay…” Jeff stammered. “But why? And if he does it every year, why doesn’t someone stop him? Or warn us? Or close? Or whatever?” Jeff realized he sounded a bit foolish as he asked.
“Joe won’t say. He doesn’t call the police, and he won’t file insurance. It’s a big secret.” Shirley laughed. “Not the answer you expected, was it? Now it’s going to drive you crazy like it does the rest of us.”
“Well, I know where I’m going to be next year on March 22nd, Shirley. Right outside, waiting to ask him.” Jeff smiled, knowing that he would.
“Gotta have something to live for, Jeff. I guess I better clean up some of this glass before Joe gets here.” Shirley walked away, presumably to get a broom.
Jeff finished his cup of coffee and watched people look at the broken window as they walked. Curiosity filled everyone’s eyes as they looked. One younger man looked at Jeff as if to say, “What happened?” Jeff shrugged, pretending he didn’t know.
As Jeff stood up to leave, Joe came through the kitchen and around the long counter. To Jeff’s surprise, he was smiling as he looked at the damage.
Jeff laughed as he left. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” he told himself.
One of my favorite people asked me half-jokingly if “heretoforward” was a word. When she used it, I understood it in context.
My short answer to the question? Yes, because it conveyed meaning.
Is it proper? Who cares?
I added it to my dictionaries to ensure I use it in the future without being reminded of some arbitrary rule.
“Heretofore” is a ‘real’ word. It supposedly means ‘before now,’ or ‘previously.’
If that stupid word is a ‘real’ word, then so too is ‘heretoforward.’ English is stuffed with ridiculous words, thousands of them, most of them orphans.
It reminds me of the word ‘overmorrow,’ which means ‘the day after tomorrow.’ It’s a good word, one that shouldn’t have fallen out of favor. If we’re going to use logic, let’s take a hard look at some of the rules we take for granted, especially those which make it hard for regular people to immediately understand how our language can be used. I didn’t put the word ‘properly’ in that last sentence because ‘proper’ is a unicorn.
Regarding language, I am not a perfectionist and certainly not a purist. I like language that breaks things and evolves rapidly. If you search the ‘language’ or ‘grammar’ tags of my blog, I’ll probably irritate you with my consistent message: language exists in its present form because we politely agree that it does. It really is that simple.
You can accuse me of laziness all you want. Heretoforward, it won’t bother me. I’ll be over here doing whatever I want with the language. I won’t stray too far because I’m not writing “A Clockwork Orange.” The point is to convey meaning. If I can do that while causing the purists’ hair to stand on end, even better.
Since I’m helping someone new learn a bit of Spanish, I find myself reminding her that English is a bastard language and trying to impose its arbitrary rules on other languages is a recipe for disgust.
P.S. Commenting to tell me how stupid I am wastes your time, not mine. Ha!
My Grandmother Bea surprised me by picking up the framed photograph from the oak table near the door. “It’s time I shared the story with you, John, if you want to hear it?” she asked, knowing my impatience to know was a decade in the making. “Have some tea with me while I tell you.” I wondered about that photograph at least a dozen times over the years. I called it the “Grandmother Mona Lisa” picture.
As I poured a ridiculous amount of honey into my teacup, Bea added the hot tea, using her prized teapot that resembled a rooster with its head craned.
“I was nineteen when this picture was taken. We lived in a little shotgun house no bigger than this living room. It was all heated by a single stove. We barely scraped by. My Uncle John, who you were probably named after, came by Saturday afternoon to give us a tableful of food. We were glad to have it. John worked at one of the mills, and he also loved cards. Though it killed my Dad to know it, John was good at gambling and often returned from his weekend trips to the Mississippi with cash. He always took time to share the wealth with us and a bit for the church up near Cypress. That church burned in 1961. On that Saturday, he came home with a camera. He won it playing cards. The photographer who foolishly played cards with him gave him to him instead of payment. He also showed John how to use it. It’s no small thing to know that your Uncle Thomas got his first guitar from Uncle John. And that guitar took him to Nashville. He also brought home three cars that way.”
Grandmother Bea was smiling in a way that I’d never seen before. She was joyously reaching back into the bygones, reliving the memories. She held up a finger and said, “Let’s celebrate a little.” She reached to the side of her sitting chair and pulled out a small bottle of whiskey. “You didn’t think I wasn’t able to have a little fun, did you?” She laughed. She poured a bit into her cup of tea and offered me some. I accepted it, shaking my head. Dad taught me that it was discourteous to decline a drink in someone else’s house.
“When Uncle John came to see us that day, he brought along a young man named Henry. Henry came back from the river to get a job at one of the mills. It wasn’t unusual for Uncle John to bring back recruits that he thought would be good workers. He was seldom wrong. I was sitting in the kitchen near the back window so I could catch a breeze. When Henry walked through and nodded his head as an introduction, he said, “Miss, pleased to meet you.” When his eyes met mine, I felt like I had been hit by a bolt of lightning. Henry’s brown eyes and dark hair consumed me. Uncle John walked in behind Henry. He must have seen the look on my face because he laughed. He said, “I remember being young!” Henry and Uncle John went to the backyard to sit in the shade with my Dad. After a few minutes, Mom asked me to take them tea. Even though my hands were shaking, I did. As I poured Henry a glass, his eyes met mine, and I almost dropped the glass. Dad asked me if I was alright. “Yes, sir.” Uncle John laughed and gave Dad one of those mischievous looks.
Grandmother Bea laughed, thinking about it. She gulped her tea and set the cup on the small table in front of us.
“Later, when we had sandwiches for an early supper, Henry and I walked along the dirt road that led to Cypress. I was a bit bashful and was tongue-tied. Henry seemed comfortable just walking and stealing an occasional glance at me. I was nineteen and had never done more than steal a quick peck on the lips. But I wanted to hug him like nobody’s business. When we got back to the house, Uncle John wanted to take our picture together, Henry and me. He kept teasing us. Mom told him it wouldn’t be proper, which seemed ridiculous even then. It was just a picture. So Uncle John had me sit by the front door in the fancy chair. Henry kneeled next to me, slightly out of frame. And right before Uncle Henry snapped the picture, Henry unexpectedly reached for my left hand and held it, his fingers encircling my wrist. You can’t see the blush on my face in the black and white photo, but I was flushed. Uncle John brought me the picture before Christmas, after. He told me it was the most beautiful picture he would ever take and that he would never forget how Henry and I looked at each other after the picture. It was then that I confessed to Uncle John what no one had known at the time: before Henry left with Uncle John that evening, Henry came back to me out on the porch, kneeled on one knee, and told me that he was coming back in two weeks to ask my Dad if he might be able to see me until he could earn enough to get married.”
Grandmother Bea took a sharp breath. I knew she was on the verge of being overwhelmed. I reached for her hand and held her delicate fingers as she continued. I knew whatever was coming was terrible and painted with tears.
“I wanted to tell Mom what Henry had said, but I didn’t want to break the spell. Sunday at church, all I could think about was imagining Henry and I standing at the front of the pews as we accepted our vows. It was young and foolish of me, I know. Monday, Henry started his new job at the mill. I knew he’d learn fast with Uncle John helping him. Wednesday afternoon, about 5:30, I heard a car pull up into the yard. I knew it was Uncle John. It was rare for him to visit during the week. He worked hard, and the hours sometimes wore him down. I looked out the front window and saw Dad walking up to meet Uncle John. After a minute of talking, Dad hugged Uncle John. That was a rare thing, even then. They walked around the house to sit under the big shade tree. Mom took them something to drink. When she came back inside, I couldn’t help but ask questions. “What happened, Mom? Did Uncle John get fired?” Mom looked at me strangely. “No. Nothing like that. The boy that he brought with him Saturday? Henry? He got killed this morning at the mill. A log came out of the sander and hit him in the head, killing him instantly.” I don’t remember much after that, only that I ran out of the house and along the dirt road, probably for a mile. Later, Uncle John’s car came up behind me as I shuffled along, my face covered in tears. He got out and hugged me, that I do remember. He held me as I cried. Eventually, he took me home. Mom didn’t ask me any questions. Uncle John likely told her not to.”
As I sat next to Grandmother Bea, I looked at the picture, taken at the happiest moment of her life, or at least the most bittersweet. Henry would have been my Grandfather except for circumstance.
Grandmother Bea spoke as her eyes pooled with tears. “When Uncle John gave me the picture at Christmas, it almost destroyed me. When I told him that Henry had proposed, he smiled and hugged me. “Y’all would have been spectacular, Bea! Don’t let that freeze up your life. Let time take your hand and lead you away from the pain. It just takes time.” He handed me the picture and told me I would have a great life. He was right. I have. But when my first child was born, I thought of Henry. When Uncle John died, it was Henry’s dark eyes that filled my mind. I don’t need a picture of him to know we would have been happy. You can’t see him in this picture, but his face was filled with a smile so large that I can’t bear to think about it. Now you know my story. I’m telling you the story because I know you will have a lot of heartache in your life. We all do. But if you find love, take it by the hand and smile in kindness and love. If you can do that, life will be a breeze.”
For a full minute, Grandmother Bea and I sat, both of us looking at the picture. Without speaking, both of us stood up as I hugged her, hoping that the power of Uncle John’s touch had passed to me. She pulled away from me, her hands on both of my arms. “Now, let’s have another little bit of whiskey and talk about you.” She smiled. . . . P.S. I didn’t share the photo because I want each of you to imagine Grandmother Bea as she was, much in the same way that each of us can imagine young Henry’s dark eyes and deep smile. One day, as each of us transitions from flesh to memory, it would serve us well to think of them both, precariously making plans, yet filled with life.
Periodically, I take the time to write about writing.
The safest writing rule is: “Don’t.”
Everyone who writes struggles to avoid deliberately hurting people when they write. Most writers incorporate bits and bites, if not from whole cloth, from their lives. Good people don’t intentionally stab at others if it can be avoided. Good people also take a breath and consider that they might be filtering the words in a way that’s unintended.
I write stories that combine disparate elements of life. There have been times when I’ve written a story that is one hundred percent fiction and still had people criticize me for ‘stealing their stories.’ In others, I hide the truth in plain sight, as is the case with the stolen baby story, or the one about the vengeful abused girl who grew up to exact her revenge. People share a lot of secrets with me. I am grateful and don’t set out to repay that sharing by hurting them.
It is possible that people will personalize some of the writing. This happens even when their story wasn’t in my head when I wrote it.
That’s part of the reason I remind people to stop raising their hands if they think I’m talking about them.
Chances are, I am not.
Either way, raising your hand or objecting instantly removes the doubt as to whether my writing applies to you. Or more succinctly, that you think it does. (It becomes self-identification.)
While everything that happens to me is fair game for me to write about, anyone who reads what I write should easily see that I am judicious in my restraint and especially so for current shenanigans and goings-on. Time always morphs our initial reactions. We need time to process events; though the immediate ‘take’ we have gives us insight, so too does the passage of time.
I could be fearless and accountable to no one and spew out a wildly true and interesting blog. But it would also result in needless anger, harm, and hurt feelings. That similarity to shouting in anger does have its payoffs – but the consequences to the payoffs are invariably bad and reveals our lesser selves. I fail sometimes to take enough time to consider. Don’t we all? I try not to. But it is critical to understand that we all own our own stories.
So, if you read my blog, you’re going to have to trust that what I post is well-considered, even if ridiculous.
I would write a list of recent “I thought he was talking about” stories, but there are too many.
To be absolutely clear: it is possible that I’m being an asshole and that it isn’t your imagination. If that is communicated to me, I will probably rectify the confusion or applicability. Contrary to what many people think, being an obtuse asshole does not pay off in the long run. Or conversely, I could tell the story in its unvarnished form.
Hey, I’m not perfect. Just give me some leeway here, okay?